PHOTO: The Johnstons take a family photo at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil (Courtesy Instagram/Gordon Johnston)
When Women’s National Team defender Shanlee Johnston packed her bags and headed for Rio this summer, it was not for the reason she had first hoped.
A defender on Canada’s women’s field hockey team, Shanlee had her sights set on the 2016 Olympics as a player.
But with Canada’s women just narrowly missing out on qualification, she instead went to the Games as a spectator and supporter of her younger brother Gordon, who competed in Rio as a defender on Canada’s men’s team.
“I was a little apprehensive at first because,” says the 26 year-old native of Vancouver, British Columbia. “I knew that it was still a pretty fresh wound having not qualified.”
But after the initial shock wore off, Shanlee – like most other siblings would be – was excited to be in Rio supporting her brother and his teammates.
“When it became all about the guys playing, it was a lot easier to get into it and get behind them,” she says.
The relationship between the two Johnston siblings is a close one because of the shared experiences of field hockey, which made Shanlee’s presence at the Games in Brazil valuable for her brother.
“They had a pretty rough first game despite playing some good hockey in there,” she recalls, referencing Canada’s 6-2 loss to Germany to open the Olympics. “And my brother needed a little bit of support.”
It was welcomed support, according to Gordon, who was playing in his first Olympic game.
“Shan and I share common goals, she’s definitely someone I can relate with in terms of how I feel after a certain match,” he says. “Having her there to relate with is always easier, to communicate with her in terms of actual hockey.”
But the benefit of being in Rio was not just seen on his side.
For Shanlee, who is still in the prime of her field hockey career and hopes to represent Canada at the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, being in Rio also presented an opportunity to see the realization her end goal in person.
As self-proclaimed fan of watching the Olympics, she remembers the expression on the face of Alexander Bilodeau when he won gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and saw similar expressions when seeing her male field hockey counterparts becoming Olympians for the first time in Rio.
It was as if she put a face to the name of the Games, so to speak; and a tangible feeling to the goal of getting there.
“Last year, when we were in the qualification process, everyone felt that we were close but it wasn’t palpable, something within our reach, something that we could know,” she says of the goal of reaching the Olympics.
“But now having actually seen it up close and personal and actually seeing the teams that we have played in the last year at the Olympics playing there, it really almost became more clear that we belong at that level.”
While for some, re-starting the four-year Olympic cycle can be a struggle, Shanlee’s experience in Rio and the resulting sense of reality has motivated her even more.
“I feel like I’m on such a high right now wanting to get out there training and get better,” she says. “I just need to work on making sure it’s maintained. That passion and that drive to want to get to the Olympics has to be maintained from now until four years from now.”
And if it is, there is a good chance that her Olympic experience will too soon become a reality.